Religion

As DNA testing takes off, some American Jews look for answers

Seth Merrell, president of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation Board, is very interested in his family history. He has taken two  DNA tests.  He has been able to track movements of his family tree through history and where his family may have originated. (May 18, 2018)
Seth Merrell, president of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation Board, is very interested in his family history. He has taken two DNA tests. He has been able to track movements of his family tree through history and where his family may have originated. (May 18, 2018) The Wichita Eagle

Growing up, Seth Merrell was told that he was a member of the Tribe of Levi, the tribe of Israel designated as priests.

He always wondered whether that was actually the case. Eventually, he got an answer.

A DNA test, one of two that Merrell has taken, showed that he was indeed part of the Levi genetic pool.

“As far as from a Jewish perspective, it’s going back thousands of years to see if all these stories, all these things as far as DNA is concerned are really true,” he said. “To use the DNA, for me it’s (a way of) being able to connect back to the past.”

Last week, Merrell, who is president of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation, gathered with about 20 others to learn about genealogy research, a subject that is gaining popularity as records become more readily available online and as DNA tests become easy to purchase. Wichita has two separate genealogical societies, The Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society and the Wichita Genealogical Society.

Merrell plans to take a third DNA test. Different ones test different parts of the DNA and results can later be combined into one database to give a more in-depth view.

Jewish people may be more interested in genealogy than others for the same reasons that make Jewish genealogies harder to track, Merrell said.

“If you look at things that happened over the years — persecution, people being killed, forced to leave, dispersed all over the place — it’s more difficult to find somebody,” he said. “You know your family probably concentrated in an area, but in Judaism it’s hard to tell. They’re all over the world.”

For him, genealogy research has given him an idea of where his ancestors may have traveled: from the Mediterranean Basin to Asia Minor, then Italy and south France and later southern Europe. When they moved to the United States, they came from the Russian-Polish area, he said.

“The Jewish people have such a hunger for genealogy,” said Julie Fruhauf, administrative associate for the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation, in an email.

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, leaving their relatives in search of information. Jews who did immigrate to the United States were often told to change their names to sound less Jewish, causing further difficulties in tracking family history, she said.

The Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., includes a list of frequently asked questions. The first is, “I lost relatives during the Holocaust but I don’t know their names. How do I start looking for them?”

The second question is similar: "I lost relatives during the Holocaust but I don't know what community they came from. How do I start looking for them?"

Ken Bravo, president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, said the interest in genealogy among Jews is a matter of people in general becoming more interested in finding out about their family histories.

"The question is who am I? Where did I come from?" Bravo said. "We all have extended families. We have four grandparents, eight great grandparents. You get back a few generations and you have a lot of people in your family."

Bravo has been researching his genealogy since the 1970s. In that time, he's found many relatives, including his mother's first cousin, who he hadn't known existed. She survived World War II even though others in her hometown was killed.

You reach the point where you think you've found everything, Bravo said, then you trip over a piece of information that leads you to something or someone new.

"It's like a big jigsaw puzzle," he said. "But it's your own jigsaw puzzle."

Kimarie Funschelle’s husband had always been told that his birth mother was a young woman who wanted her child to be adopted by a Jewish family.

Raised in the Jewish faith by his adoptive parents, Larry Funschelle always wondered whether his ethnicity actually was Jewish.

An AncestryDNA test confirmed that he has an 88 percent Jewish heritage, something that gave him a “sense of truth,” his wife said.

Paul Wolff, who is also involved with the federation, said he didn’t know who his grandparents or great grandparents were.

“So I’m interested in trying to track down the history,” he said. “Who were these people? Where did they come from?”

He first took a class on genealogy at Wichita State University. Then, he started searching online. He’s also visited his hometown in Connecticut, where he has gone to the library, the historical society and the cemetery in search of answers.

In two years of research, he has learned about some of his great grandparents and grandparents. He has pictures of them. He knows that his ancestors came to the United States through Ellis Island and has even found relatives alive today that he didn’t know he had.

“It’s rewarding when you find somebody you didn’t know and find a picture of them — and go whoa, look at that,” he said.

With a warrant, police can request DNA samples from companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe when it is needed for a a judicial investigation.

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @kathsburgess.
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